Letting Go & Holding On
We’ve had a request for more stories about Ajaan Fuang, Ajaan Lee, and Ajaan Mun. I have two stories.
As I mentioned the other day, one of the things I noticed about the Thai ajaans is their sense of humor. With Ajaan Mun, this might be unexpected. You see those pictures of Ajaan Mun in which his eyes look like they could drill right through you. That’s the kind of gaze he had because he was a very serious practitioner, and he had learned to drill right through his defilements. But he also had a sense of humor. This was part of his wisdom, the part that allowed him to step back from his defilements and put the events of his mind into perspective.
Ajaan Fuang tells a story of a time when he first went to stay with Ajaan Mun. There was a nuns’ community just down the road, and when the monks went for alms, the nuns would come out and put alms in their bowls. There was one young nun in particular who seemed to be especially interested in Ajaan Fuang. She would fix special central Thai food for him and would knit little containers for his spoon and other utensils. Ajaan Mun noticed this. First he checked out Ajaan Fuang and he saw that Ajaan Fuang was not interested. So he decided that it was now time to help the nun. Later on that week, the group of nuns came to Ajaan Mun for some instructions, and he started with the question, “Are you all observing the eight precepts?” And they said, “Yes.” Then he told a story of Lady Visākhā, who saw large groups of people observing the eight precepts, and so she went to each group to ask them why. First she went to a group of old people, and they answered that they were observing the eight precepts because they wanted to be reborn in heaven. Then she went to other groups and finally came to a group of young women. Their answer was, “We want something better than heaven. We want a husband.” That was the end of the special central Thai food and the little knitted things. That was Ajaan Mun’s sense of humor.
As for Ajaan Fuang, there are lots of stories I could tell, but one in particular I like. When we were building the chedi at the monastery, lots of people would come from Bangkok on the weekend to help with the work. One weekend, someone sent along a bushel basket of oranges, and there was one young man in the group who kept looking at the oranges and finally he came up with a good excuse for eating them. He said, “We’re all children of Ajaan Fuang”—because, after all, the ajaans in Thailand are usually called Than Paw or Luang Paw, which means venerable father. And so the young man went on to say, “Ajaan Fuang wouldn’t want his children to be hungry. He would probably want us to eat the oranges.” And then he added, “Anyone who doesn’t eat an orange is not really a child of Ajaan Fuang.” So they passed out the oranges. One woman in the group didn’t feel good about this, but to show that she was Ajaan Fuang’s child, she just ate one section. When they got to the monastery and they told Ajaan Fuang what had happened, he got quite stern with them. He said, “Look, anyone who eats food that’s meant for monks without first asking permission will get reborn as a hungry ghost.” This frightened the woman who had eaten just the one section, so she said, “But I only ate one section.” And Ajaan Fuang replied, smiling, “Well, as long as you’re going to be a hungry ghost, you might as well eat as much as you can while you can.”
Those are the stories. However, there’s a more serious point I’d like to make, which is that all of the ajaans teach that even though the practice is a practice of letting go, still you have to let go in stages. You don’t let go all at once. In Ajaan Lee’s image, if you let go without having created the good things in the path, you’re like a poor person who lets go of money because you don’t have any. As he said, the Buddha wants us to let go like rich people. In other words, you develop your wealth and then once you have it, you don’t have to carry it around. You just let it sit in your house and then when you need it, it’s there. If you let go like a poor person, though, then when you need these things, you won’t have anything. Another analogy he gave is that it’s like a person with a wound who says, “I don’t want to take care of this wound. After all, it is inconstant, stressful, and not-self.” Of course, what’s going to happen is that the wound will get infected and it can make you sick or even kill you. The wise way, of course, is that if you have a wound, you take care of it, and then once it’s healed, you don’t have to take care of it anymore.
The other ajaans make the same point with other analogies. For example, with Ajaan Fuang: When I first went to study with him, it was soon after the American moon landing, and so he told me that the practice was like going to the moon. First, you need the booster rockets, and then as the booster rockets use up their fuel, you let them go, one by one by one. The capsule can get to the moon because it’s dropped the boosters, but if it weren’t first attached to them, it wouldn’t be able to get there. In other words, you let go step by step.
Ajaan Mahā Boowa’s image is that the practice is like climbing a ladder up to the roof of a house. You hold onto one rung and then you hold onto a higher rung. Only then do you let go of the lower rung to hold onto the next higher one. You keep on with this process until finally you get to the roof of the house, and that’s when you can let go of the ladder entirely.
Ajaan Chah’s image is that it’s like coming back from a market with a banana in your hand. Someone sees you and asks, “Why are you carrying the banana?”
“Because I want to eat it,” you say.
And then the person says, “Are you going to eat the peel, too?”
“Then why are you holding onto the peel?”
That’s where Ajaan Chah asks, “With what would you answer that person?” And his answer is interesting, in that it has two layers. The first layer is: “You answer with desire.” In other words, to come up with a good answer, you need to have desire for a good answer. It’s through that desire that your discernment develops.
The second layer to Ajaan Chah’s answer, then, is the answer you give to the other person: “Because the time hasn’t come yet to let go of the peel.” If you let go of the peel right now, the banana becomes mush in your hand. So Ajaan Chah’s making two points here. One, of course, is that you let go in stages. There will come a time when you let go of the peel. If you let go of your precepts or your concentration before they do their work, your mind will be mush. But the other point is that in order to give rise to discernment, you need to have desire. Desire is an important part of the path. Eventually, you’ll let go of desire, too, but right now, the time hasn’t come yet to let go of it.
Ajaan Lee would comment that people who’ve been reading a lot of Dhamma want to go straight to the teaching on inconstancy, stress, and not-self right away, and that way they treat even virtue, concentration, and discernment as being inconstant, stressful, and not-self. As a result, these things never get developed and the path never gets anywhere. As he noted, when you’re practicing concentration, you’re actually fighting against the three qualities of inconstancy, stress, and not-self. You’re trying to create a state of mind that’s constant, pleasant, and under your control. Only when you’ve succeeded in doing that can you see the subtle levels of inconstancy, stress, and not-self that are still there in the concentration, and that’s when you can let go of both sides: what’s constant and what’s inconstant, what’s stressful and what’s pleasant, what’s under your control and what’s not—in other words, self and not-self. And that’s when the mind gains freedom.
Back in the late 1990’s there was a controversy in Thailand. A Buddhist sect claimed that nibbāna was your true self, and other monks came out to say publicly, No, nibbāna is not-self. This controversy became so heated that it actually appeared in all the newspapers. Can you imagine that in France? Le Monde and Figaro running articles on whether nibbāna is self or not-self? At any rate, someone finally went to ask Ajaan Mahā Boowa whether nibbāna is self or not-self, and his answer was: Nibbāna is nibbāna. Then he explained: We use the teaching on self in order to develop good qualities in ourselves and then we use the teaching on not-self to let go of everything in the mind. And at that point you have to let go of not-self, too. Only then do you get to nibbāna. He said, basically, that self and not-self are like the stairway up to your house. First you need to use the stairway to get to the house, but once you’re there, you don’t need the stairway anymore.
So, when you’re sitting here meditating, you are holding on. You’re holding onto your breath, you’re holding onto your desire to get the mind concentrated. It’s simply a matter of learning how to hold on skillfully. If someone comes along and says, “Hey, why don’t you just let go?” You tell them, “I still need the banana peel.”
You can also think of an image from the Canon. You know the image of the raft going across the river. When you get to the other side, you don’t carry the raft with you anymore. That’s the part of the story that everyone focuses on. They forget the other part, which is that while you’re crossing the river, you have to hold onto the raft. If you make a show of letting go of the raft, you’re just going to get swept down the river.
Another image from the Canon is of trying to get milk out of a cow. As the Buddha said, if you try to get milk by twisting the horn, you’re not going to get any milk, and you’ll also harass the cow. Now the problem sometimes with our practice is that we’re twisting the horn of the cow, and someone comes along and comments, “You know, you can stop twisting the horn, and things will be a lot easier.” And you find that, Yes, you do feel better by not twisting the horn—but you still don’t get any milk. You have to do the work of pulling on the udder, and that’s when you’ll get the milk you want.
Q: These teachings explain the middle way, don’t they?
A: Basically, what’s middle about the middle way is not that you’re halfway between pleasure and pain. It’s a matter of learning how to approach pleasure and pain not as ends, but as means. You use pleasure and use pain for a higher purpose. For example, we’re using the pleasure of jhāna as part of the path, and we’re also using whatever pain comes up in the course of the practice as something to investigate, to comprehend, to gain discernment. The middle way means just this: learning how to use these things for a higher purpose, even things that we’ll eventually have to let go of. For example, you know you’re going to have to let go of your aggregates at some point, but first you have to use them to construct your path. In fact, it’s through using them that you get to understand them. That’s the point Ajaan Lee was making. You can make an analogy that the aggregates are like bricks, and you have the choice of either carrying them on your shoulder—and suffering from them—or putting them down on the ground to pave your road.